New TRP, ATP Target Infotech
HD Displays, NII, Data Storage Likely Awards
Transforming the TV into a PC -- and vice versa -- has become a hype-filled and so far profitless pursuit among computer and electronics industry giants.
But it may fall to a little-known start-up in Utah called Electronic Cottage Inc. to pull off this conversion -- considered by many to be the real event that will ignite the electronic information revolution.
The enabling technology is called Electronic Librarian. It captures, compresses and encodes the audio portions of broadcasts, and then every few seconds records video images.
A key strategy is to process closed-captioned text accompanying broadcasts, eliminating the technically complex task of real-time computer speech recognition needed to convert audio portions of broadcasts to a form computers can understand and process.
Electronic Librarian then creates links between video images and text, now digitized and indexed. With indexed audio on hand, users can conduct searches on broadcasts and instantly retrieve relevant audio portions along with accompanying images -- thus solving a nagging logistics problem for the many phone, computer and entertainment companies trying to put worlds of electronic information at the consumer's fingertips.
To understand Electronic Librarian's power, picture what one of its customers
plans to do with it: Sen. Orrin Hatch, R.-Utah, is looking to become a beta site for a service to record and index news broadcasts -- and instantly search them for every mention, say, of NAFTA and his name. If it works, Congress may install a system to serve as a kind of digital siphon of live broadcasts, radio interviews and online newspaper feeds.
Once pumped through the Electronic Librarian, the information would be indexed and immediately searchable by Hill staffers from office computers. Four to six months of broadcasts can be retrieved using one laser disc -- and the entire system can be bought for less than $20,000.
Elegance is the operative phrase. "It's really simple when you think about it," said John Adamson, the 41-year-old president of the six-person company.
The technology has already attracted major customers, including the Pentagon's Strategic Defense Command. KSL Television News in Utah uses it for video files going back to 1980.
But the biggest vote of confidence may come from Korean electronics giant Samsung, which has built a set of silicon chips around the technology. Those chips could fit inside much-heralded set-top boxes that would give every television a quick silicon fix, essentially turning them into interactive computers -- cyberspace navigators for the rest of us.
As for the big picture, ECI's product appears to dovetail with prevailing forces in information technology. George Gilder, the noted technology writer, has written frequently on the looming battle between phone companies and the proponents of so-called "dark fiber."
Phone companies are spending billions to cobble together highly complex, centralized switching operations that play traffic cop for the millions of information requests expected to flood the data superhighway.
Gilder claims this approach is doomed to failure because it refuses to exploit the defining trend of the post-industrial era: the ever-shrinking and increasingly powerful computer chip, which must logically lead to the transfer of computer functions from central switching offices and huge mainframes to the peripheries -- the boxes and computers that hang off the end of the phone lines and computer networks.
What connects these boxes is known as dark fiber, so-called because the lines themselves need not be intelligently controlled and managed by a central switching facility.
It is the power of silicon, and the ability to embed this in relatively cheap and easy-to-use devices such as Electronic Librarian, that allows users at the ends of phone lines to do much of their own "switching" -- much as Internet navigators now use powerful desktop computers to steer their way to the information they need and download it. And they do all this without a central network manager or phone company.
Rather than paying for phone company or cable services that might deliver, say, all broadcasts on a certain day on home repair, Electronic Librarian would record and index every news item or TV show mentioning the words "home repair" or Bob Vila's name -- and have the video ready for viewing at the end of the work day. Decentralization has the added benefit of shifting the impact of computer crashes to the edges of the network.
Meanwhile, Adamson appears to have the kind of quirky resume that entrepreneurial successes are made of. He began his adult life with technical training in welding and mechanics at Utah Technical College in the early 1970s. Since then he has logged five years of study in business management, information systems and applied mathematics and programming at various universities. Along the way he worked for the Salt Lake City Water Department, opened a motorcycle dealership, and built sophisticated test labs for military and aerospace contractors.
His last stint for an employer ended in 1986, when Adamson leveraged his own work at an Astro Aerospace test lab to launch Electronic Cottage.
"The biggest problem in a test lab is finding information," particularly video shots used to document tests, he said. His solution was to attach text to audio and video, and then search the text.
When the first laser disc came out, he wrote a software program that would link texts to information on laser video discs. Tapping connections made through his father, a veteran of the broadcast industry, Adamson began working with KSL Television in 1988 to automate the station's video news library using the technology.
Thus, while the computer industry has mostly led attempts to merge TV and PC, Electronic Cottage has been attacking the problem of convergence from the television and audio-visual worlds.
Now, Electronic Cottage is racing to embed its technology in as many broadcast applications as possible. Helping the firm is Robert Purdon, president of First Principal Royalty Corporation West in Salt Lake City. Purdon's company -- featured in a 1992 issue of Entrepreneur Magazine -- arranges financing for startups by giving investors a percentage of royalties from future product revenues. Purdon showed up in Washington last week to pitch the technology, stopping by Sen. Hatch's office and making the rounds at the CIA.
In the meantime, Electronic Cottage is busy tapping Utah's growing high-tech community. Adamson himself sits on economic development committees with top executives from high-tech Utah powerhouses Novell, Evans & Sutherland and WordPerfect. One state project in which the company is involved will use existing cable TV systems in Utah, Electronic Librarian technology and standard PCs to develop an interactive broadcast system employing the dark-fiber approach.
The company eventually hopes to include speech recognition in its product, thus allowing audio and video without closed captions to be routed through the system. Still, with only about $150,000 in annual sales, Adamson has his work cut out for him. "We need investors and partners -- big partners," he said.